Fouvry 60

We are currently enjoying in Marseille the warmth and delights of a French Mediterranean Bouillabaisse while celebrating analytic number theory and the achievements of É. Fouvry, on the occasion of his 60th birthday.

I think everyone who has been in contact with any of his papers has immense respect for his scientific work. All those of us who have been fortunate enough to talk with him beyond purely scientific matters will also attest to his exemplary intellectual honesty, rectitude, generosity and — also important to my mind — to his sense of humor.

In analytic number theory, we play day to day in a wild down-to-earth jungle. We also all know that somewhere there is a Garden of Eden, where the Riemann Hypothesis roams free, and we hope to go there one day. Fewer know that there is a place even beyond, a Nirvana where even the Riemann Hypothesis is but a shadow of a deeper truth. And fewer still are those who have set foot in this special place. É. Fouvry did, and he was among the very first ones, if not the very first; and more people have walked on the moon than been there.

A few years ago, I wrote a nominating letter for Étienne’s application to the Institut Universitaire de France. There is one sentence that I wrote which still seems to me to summarize best my feelings about this part of his work: Rarely in history was so much owed by so many arithmeticians to so few. This is even truer today than it was then. Reader, if you care at all about prime numbers, recall that without É. Fouvry and very few others (two of whom are with us in Marseille), you might well never have known that the gaps between successive primes do not grow to infinity.

À la…

A few months ago, I wondered what could be the largest cluster of foreign words in the Oxford English Dictionary, citing the examples of femme something-or-other and sympathique and company. It turns out that there is a much larger one! Here is the à la cluster:

à la 1579
à la bonne heure 1750
à la broche 1806
à la brochette 1821
à la carte 1816
à la crème 1741
à la débandade 1779
à la fourchette 1817
à la Française 1589
à la modality 1753
à la mode 1637
à-la-modeness 1669
à la mort 1536
à la page 1930
à la roi 1852
à la royale 1853
à la Russe 1775
à la Turquie 1676

That’s no less than 18 items (the date on the right is the first OED citation). It’s interesting that so many have to do with food, and even more that three or four are basically synonyms of “in fashion” (this is what à la page basically means). I have to admit to being partial to à-la-modeness for its translanguage qualities, although I don’t know if I will be able to use it intelligently anytime soon (though one never knows; after all, I did manage to sneak ptarmigan in a recent paper…)

A missing word

From the blog of the rare books collection of the ETH Library, I just learnt that the word for the study and classification of grape species that I was looking for is “ampelography” (ampélographie in French).

(The relevance of this word to my daily life is that the computers on my home network are named after grapes; red grapes are reserved for desktops and white for laptops.)

OED clusters

Today’s “word of the day” from the OED was “femme incomprise”. The list of nearby words contains:

  • femme (first quote 1814, from a letter of Byron)
  • femme de chambre (first quote 1741)
  • femme de ménage (first quote 1826)
  • femme du monde (first quote 1849)
  • femme fatale (first quote 1879; one wouldn’t guess that this is taken from an article in that well-known journal of cosmopolitan sophisticates, the St Louis Globe Democrat)
  • femme incomprise (first quote 1841)

I wonder if there is a bigger cluster of foreign words with a common root?

The other one I know and like, though it is not in strictly alphabetic order, is also quite impressive:

  • simpatico, simpatica (first quote 1864, “The Frau Professorin was less ‘simpatica’”, from the memoir of a certain H. Sidgwick)
  • sympathique (first quote 1859, in a letter of Queen Victoria, “The sight of a professor or learned man alarms me, and is not sympathique to me”)
  • sympathisch (first quote 1911)